In the summer of 1989, I got a job with the maintenance crew at my college. Most of the other students I worked with were sent out every morning with dirty plastic goggles and a weed whacker, but I got assigned, with two other guys, George and John, to work with a long-time permanent member of the maintenance staff, a middle-aged man named Lynny. Unlike us, Lynny had a uniform: gray pants and a tan button-down shirt that had a patch over the heart that said “Lynny.”
Lynny’s job was to move stuff around if it needed moving, and every once in a while to drive broken things to the dump. Lynny had a flat-top crewcut and chain-smoked Lucky Strikes. He took his time doing everything. There wasn’t much to do. How to get through a day?
We spent a lot of time riding around in his truck, Lynny at the wheel and the three of us lounging around in the back, the wind rushing through our hair, etc. Whenever we coasted by a sweaty team of fellow student workers hacking away at the roadside weeds like a chain gang, we laid it on extra thick, kicking back as if we were contestants in a tanning competition. We all had mirrored sunglasses.
Once in a while we got called to move a desk or something from one office to another. Lynny would stand off to the side gripping an unlit Lucky as the three of us shoved the thing through a doorway and down the hall and through another doorway. Lynny followed us into the new room, sticking the Lucky into his mouth. He squinted for a couple seconds at the desk sitting cockeyed in the middle of the room.
“Fuck it. Good enough,” he grumbled around his cigarette. Every task ended with these words.
One day Lynny drove us out to a storage barn a mile or so off of campus. He took a long time finding the right key for the padlock on the barn door, leafing through a huge bulge of keys. Lynny had a key for everything on his giant keychain. The trouble was finding the right one.
“By Jesus,” he hissed, starting to sweat.
Finally he found the one that did the trick. We walked through the barn door and stood around for a while in the dark. Gradually we saw that the room was mostly filled with old classroom chairs.
“Shit,” Lynny said, “I guess they want us to take the backs off all these goddamn chairs.”
There was a wooden loading dock type of thing outside the barn door, and we pulled a bunch of the old chairs made of metal and plastic out there as Lynny got a toolbox from his truck. He stuck around for a little while, smoking and watching us sit there and yank on rusty bolts with pliers and wrenches.
“I’ll be back,” he finally mumbled. We kept wrestling with the chairs for a minute or so after his truck disappeared, but then we stopped and started wandering around the barn. We weren’t looking for anything in particular, but after a while we found a broken-off broom handle and a ragged tennis ball.
There was a pasture next to the barn, and we went out there and took turns at bat. We had a good view of the long curving driveway up to the barn, so when Lynny’s truck appeared at the foot of the drive we hustled back to the barn. By the time he pulled up we were working on the same chairs we’d been working on when he left.
“All right, boys, we got some other thing now,” Lynny said. We left the chairs out on the dock but took the broomstick and tennis ball with us as we piled into his truck.
I don’t remember what the other thing was. It doesn’t matter. In truth, there was hardly ever anything to do.
We began using the broom handle and the tennis ball to fill up all the gaps in the day. A lot of these gaps occurred at the maintenance building, where Lynny returned to periodically.
“Got to check on something,” he said, then he’d disappear into the building.
We set up a diamond in between the maintenance building and the garage that housed all the tractors and back hoes, etc. If you hit the tennis ball in fair territory onto the roof of either the maintenance building or the garage, it was a basehit (either a single, double, or triple, depending on how far away from home plate the ball hit the roof). If you hit it beyond the end of the roofs, it was a home run. Anything else was an out.
We played the game elsewhere, including in the field by the barn with the chairs (where we returned every once in a while to yank at the rusty bolts until Lynny drove away), but it was never as good as at the maintenance building. This is because a home run was a home run there. Everywhere else we argued with each other if a particular long hit was a home run or not, but at the maintenance building it was clear: if that yellow ball disappeared beyond a roof, it was gone.
We all had our hot streaks. I still remember mine, which seemed to go on for days. Every time we got back to the maintenance building it would still be my at-bat and I’d pick up where I left off: drilling the ball far beyond the roof on the left. By then I had developed a straight-backed batting stance and a short, quick stroke, both modeled after a young American League slugger named Mark McGwire. Every time I bashed another moon shot I felt the image of that triumphant green and gold giant coursing through me.
It was all completely meaningless, of course. But how beautiful it was anyway. It was my first great summer in a while. It was my last great summer. By the next summer I had graduated, but I still returned to the maintenance crew. I had no other prospects and wanted to save up money for a trip back to China, where I’d studied for a semester in the fall of ’89. George and John were gone, so instead of being a mirrored-shades-wearing member of “Lynny’s Boys” I was now just the weird already graduated dude who rode around with Lynny. I no longer rode in the back but sat in the passenger seat, beside Lynny. We didn’t have much to talk about. Most days, we sat out the last hour in a parking lot overlooking the soccer fields with the engine of Lynny’s truck ticking. With a few minutes to go before quitting time, Lynny started the truck back up.
“Fuck it. Good enough,” he said.
Once in a while, if something had to be moved, Lynny grabbed a couple guys from the lawn crew, Steve and Geno. They were in between their freshman and sophomore years. Both had played on the college’s baseball team, which somehow added a new note of silliness into my attempts to resurrect the summer waiting-for-Lynny broom-ball league. The game had been meaningless the summer before, but there’s meaningless and then there’s meaningless. During one of my at-bats that second summer, Steve unleashed a real pitch, a fastball that blurred by me in a bolt of yellow. I stood there with the broom handle on my shoulder. I had gotten a Dear John letter from my Chinese girlfriend by then. She’d met someone else. Don’t come back here for me, she said. I had no idea what I was going to do with my life.
“Sorry,” Steve snickered. “Just felt the need for a little speed.”
No way am I ever going to cut it, I thought.
But I didn’t even mean to start talking about that second summer. I’m hesitant to even bring up a particular moment from that summer of 1990. But what the hell. Steve and Geno and I were standing around and waiting for Lynny to find out what needed to be moved where. In addition to being the catcher on the school baseball team, Geno was a body-builder and he wanted to show us his “guns” so he did a few pushups in the grass and then ripped off his shirt and pulled a few muscle-man poses. This sounds ridiculous, but Geno was a good-natured kid, and it was all done with at least a hint of self-parody. But he was serious about it, too.
“I want to be huge,” he said. “I want to be as big as I possibly can. I’d do anything.”
“No you wouldn’t. Don’t be an idiot,” I said.
“Why not?” he said. “Why not do anything you can to go as far as you possibly can?”
“Because your balls will shrivel up, maybe? Because you’ll grow tits?”
“That’s all myth,” Geno said. He made a muscle and looked down at it, his lips pursed, like he wanted to kiss it. “You just got to be smart.”
“I don’t know, man,” I said.
“How could you know?” Geno snapped. (Translation: You are a 98-pound weakling.)
“Look, man,” Geno said, softly. “I just mean I’d totally do it.”
But forget about the summer of 1990 and all the summers that came after it. I just wanted to talk about the summer of ’89. Me and John and George and Lynny. Those chairs that we worked on again and again and never did anything with. Riding around in the back of a truck with our mirrored shades on. That broom-stick. That tennis ball. That hot streak! Home run after home run after home run disappearing beyond the aluminum roof shining in the sun. I came back the next year, trying to hold on, and it was gone. Locked away in some room somewhere. If someone had offered me a key to unlock that room, I would have taken it.